Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Drawn to Purpose: Bringing to light the many contributions of American women illustrators and cartoonists

Drawn to Purpose: American Women Illustrators and Cartoonists is the newest Library of Congress exhibition (it opened November 18), and it brings to light many remarkable but little-known contributions by North American women which have been made in the popular art forms of illustration and cartooning.

The exhibition of nearly 70 works by 43 artists on display in the Thomas Jefferson Building's Graphic Arts Galleries at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. (through October 20, 2018) includes selected original works from the late 1800s to the present, and it shows the "gradual broadening in both the private and public spheres of women's roles and interests addressing such themes as evolving ideals of feminine beauty, new opportunities emerging for women in society, changes in gender relations, and issues of human welfare."

Drawn to Purpose features works from the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress, and selections in the exhibition are grouped by type, including: Golden Age illustration, early comics, new voices in comics, editorial illustration, magazine covers and cartoons, and political cartoons.

During a recent visit to Drawn to Purpose, I learned that in the fields of illustration and cartooning – fields it should be noted that have been traditionally dominated by men – many women have earned their livelihoods creating wonderful and expressive art that has found wide dissemination in not only newspapers but also in books and periodicals, too.

Some of the artists and their works will be familiar to visitors who come see the exhibition, such as Grace Drayton, whose wide-eyed, red-cheeked "Campbell Kids" debuted in 1909. Also, there's the longtime comic strip favorite "For Better or For Worse," created by Lynn Johnston; Persian Gulf War editorial illustrations drawn by Sue Coe and Frances Jetter; and "Mixed Marriage" by New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast. A personal favorite of mine is Giséle by Elizabeth Shippen Green.

Although there was incremental progress made by women in illustration and cartooning from the 19th century into the early decades of the 20th century, it wasn't until the later 20th and early 21st century – as educational and professional opportunities grew – that we've finally witnessed women receive major acclaim from their peers.

Here's my takeaway: Drawn to Purpose demonstrates to us that although women were once constrained by gender bias, today, they have gained an immense number of new opportunities to self-express and discover. We are so fortunate.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

A darkly comedic tale, "I, Tonya" never plays for laughs

With the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics just two months away, the release of Craig Gillespie's film "I, Tonya," a very dark, comedic tale of American figure skater Tonya Harding, which is based on the unbelievable but true events of what became one of the most sensational scandals in sporting history, is a very timely one.

I remember the sordid circumstances that played themselves out like an American prime-time soap opera nearly 24 years ago, and in watching a sneak preview of "I, Tonya," Sunday morning in Washington, DC., it all came crashing back to me.

Although Harding was the first American woman figure skater to complete a triple axel in competition, her athletic fete quickly took a backseat. Instead, her legacy became forever defined by her association with "an infamous, ill-conceived, and even more poorly executed attack" on her fellow Olympic competitor Nancy Kerrigan just weeks before the 1994 Winter Olympics.

With an original screenplay written by Steven Rogers and featuring an early '80s soundtrack that will bring back memories, the film features a sympathetic portrayal of the fiery Harding by Margot Robbie, and also stars Sebastian Stan as Harding's conniving and often-abusive ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, and Allison Janney as Harding's acid-tongued, monstrous and outrageous mother LaVona Golden.

"I, Tonya," is at times absurd, other times irreverent. But, it's definitely worth two hours of your entertainment time this holiday season.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

2017 Davis Cup: France's Noah made all the right moves

Raising La Coupe Davis / 2017 World Champions France

There's always so much pressure in France to win a Davis Cup. Especially, since a new generation of tennis "musketeers" featuring Gaël Monfils, Richard Gasquet, Gilles Simon and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga are in their prime and have once again made France a competitive team.

When Belgium's mighty ace, World No. 7 David Goffin, leveled the 2017 Davis Cup championship tie at two points apiece after beating Tsonga convincingly in straight sets, 7-6 (5), 6-3, 6-2, in the opening reverse singles on Sunday afternoon, many of the 25,000-plus passionate French fans who packed Stade Pierre-Mauroy in Lille, France – just a few kilometers from the Belgian border – must have felt a collective, sinking feeling that their hopes of winning the Coupe Davis was slipping away for another year – again.

Imagine, the difficult decision that French captain Yannick Noah – the last Frenchman to win a Grand Slam when he triumphed at the 1983 French Open – faced in deciding to insert 23-year-old Lucas Pouille in the decisive fifth rubber instead of the more experienced Gasquet, 31. After all, Pouille was taken down by Goffin in Friday's first singles rubber, and Gasquet teamed with Pierre-Hugues Herbert to win Saturday's doubles rubber over Ruben Bemelmans and Joris De Loore in four sets after having never previously played together.

Thus, for the second straight year, the Davis Cup championship came down to a fifth and final rubber. The winner takes home the Davis Cup. The loser gets parting gifts from the ITF and handshakes from the winners. So, there was just a little pressure riding on the outcome of the final tennis match of the year.

Looking back, Noah's decision proved brilliant – the right one. Pouille, ranked No. 18 in the world and born just 75km from Lille, beat an overmatched Steve Darcis, 6-3, 6-1, 6-0, in just one hour and 34 minutes. Pouille showed his dominance in the final set by winning 25 of 34 points against the No. 76 Darcis. Leave it to the captain to be the first to sprint out on court to hug and congratulate Pouille. The rest of the joyful French team soon followed.

After 16 years of struggle and frustration – including losing each of the past three finals (2002, 2010, 2014) it competed in – France finally won its 10th Davis Cup championship. It was their first title since they beat Australia in 2001. France drew even with Great Britain, but still trails the U.S., which has won the Davis Cup a record 32 times and second-place Australia with 28. Belgium, which lost the 2015 final to Great Britain, is still looking for its first Davis Cup title.

Yannick Noah leads a lively rendition of "La Marseillaise."
Cue up the "La Marseillaise!" Never has a winning French team and its fan sung France's national anthem more proudly than they did during the awards ceremony in Lille.

Asked to describe the feeling of winning the Davis Cup, Pouille said during an English-language TV interview following his clinching victory, "No words needed. We have finally won it.

"There's nothing better than winning as a team, with my mates, in front of the fans, my family and my friends. We're going to celebrate and make the most of it. I'm proud of my team."

Speaking for Belgium, Goffin, who improved to 21-3 in singles rubbers with his pair of wins over Pouille and Tsonga – his team's only point points during the tie – said: "It's a disappointment even if I played two good matches. When the team loses we're all disappointed. We gave it our all. It's tough to finish this way, but we did a lot of good things as a team this year."

So, too, did France, and it marked the third Davis Cup victory as captain for Noah, who came back in 2015 for a third stint as France's Davis Cup captain after he skippered his country's team twice in the 1990s – winning in 1991 and 1996.

Shortly after Pouille's clinching victory, Noah described what it all meant for France during a television interview. "It was a beautiful adventure," he said. "We had eight, nine players capable of playing. We had a terrific team spirit. It was really beautiful to win.

"We played for people we love. I'm very proud for my team."

Looking back, France, which advanced to the championship tie against Belgium with victories over Japan, Great Britain and Serbia, won with a committed group of players. Everyone understood and accepted their roles on the team – and this French squad showed its strength in numbers. Plus, Noah backed Pouille from the beginning despite his opening-day loss to Goffin. He would have been unmercifully second-guessed if France had been swept in the reverse singles after entering the final day ahead 2-1. Instead, it turned out to be a beautiful adventure, just as Noah pictured it. Looking ahead, Pouille's definitely the future of French tennis.

Vive la France!

Photos: Courtesy of ITF Davis Cup Twitter feed.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Call Me By Your Name: A sensual and transcendent film

Call Me By Your Name / Sensual, transcendent, an Oscar contender.

Call Me By Your Name, a new film by Italian film director Luca Guadagnino, is a tender coming-of-age tale debuting this week that already has won over critics and audiences and is projected to be an Oscar contender.

A sensual and transcendent tale of first love, Call Me By Your Name is based on an acclaimed novel by André Aciman that is set in the summer of 1983 in the beautiful north of Italy countryside. My wife and I enjoyed The Cinema Club's sneak preview of the film Sunday morning in a northwest Washington, D.C. theater.

Call Me By Your Name
The central character in Call Me By Your Name is an American-Italian boy, Elio Perlman, 17 and precocious (wonderfully acted by 21-year-old Timothée Chalamet), who enjoys spending his high culture days in his family's 17th century villa transcribing and playing classical music on piano and guitar (Chalamet actually played both instruments in the film), reading books, swimming at the river, going out at night, and flirting – especially with his friend Marzia (played by Esther Garrel). It all sounds like innocent fun – and for the most part, it is. There's a certain sophistication and intellect about Elio for us to like and admire.

Throughout the 2 hour and 12 minute film, we see how Elio enjoys a close relationship with his parents. His father (played by Michael Stuhlbarg of HBO's Boardwalk Empire fame) is a classical archeologist specializing in Greco-Roman culture while his mother (played by Amira Casar) is a translator, who is always looking out for Elio's best cultural interests.

Indeed, Elio's interest is getting out in the world and experiencing things on his own, including having sex with both Marzia and with Oliver, a very charming and closeted 24-year-old American doctorate scholar (played by Armie Hammer), who is interning with Elio's father for the summer. Elio bonds with Oliver over their shared Jewish heritage, the Italian countryside they see together riding their bicycles, and his emerging sexuality. In this movie about desire, we soon learn, love means having no geography; it knows no boundaries.

During the second half of the film, the main focus is on physicality and emotions and the budding relationship between Elio and Oliver, in which Elio discovers the beauty of awakening desire and how it will alter his life forever. When Elio and Oliver kiss and engage in sex, it's all about figuring things out, both physically and emotionally. There are some long stretches without dialogue.

Near the conclusion, after Oliver has returned home, Elio's father pulls him aside and the two share a frank and accepting father-son talk about sexuality. Professor Perlman is very articulate when he conveys to his son to grow up and "be the person you needed when you were younger." Finally, Elio smiles at the end of this long scene. As the film's credits roll, we see him internalize what's happened in the entire movie.

Call Me By Your Name: Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics • Rated R • 132 minutes • In English, Italian, French and German with English subtitles. • Directed by Luca Guadagnino • Screenplay by James Ivory • Original songs performed by Sufjan Stevens.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Reflections on patriotism: Dan Rather on what unites us

Dan Rather reads from his book 'What Unites Us.'
Dan Rather finds himself thinking deeply about what it means to love America as he surely does in the age of President Donald Trump.

At a time in our nation's history when there's a crisis over our national identity, the longtime broadcast journalist has surfaced as a calm, measured voice of reason and integrity. At 86, he has embraced social media, where he regularly contributes his thoughts and wisdom via his Facebook page, which has more than 2.5 million followers.

Last week, Rather's new book, What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism, written with Emmy Award-winning journalist Elliot Kirschner, was published. In it, Rather has written a collection of 16 original and passionate essays that reflect on what it means to be an American in the 21st century.

During a recent book tour lecture at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., I listened attentively to Rather, in conversation with Washington Post editorial writer Jonathan Capehart. He discussed a variety of topics including patriotism and freedom of the press, whose values have transformed us and represent institutions that sustain our nation.

On the subject of patriotism, Rather read from his book: "Patriotism – active, constructive patriotism – takes work. It takes knowledge, engagement with those who are different from you, and fairness in law and opportunity. It takes coming together for good causes," he said. "This is one of the things I cherish most about the United States: we are a nation not only of dreamers but also of fixers. We have looked at our land and people , and said, time and again, this is not good enough; we can be better."

When asked about Capehart to discuss freedom of the press, Rather didn't hesitate when he responded: "We are the witness to the truth and there's a lot of good reporting going on out there. This president is pushing us toward a 'post-truth' and 'post-fact' political era.

"American journalism is at a crossroads," he continued. "News is what the public needs to know and it's generally what somebody else doesn't want you to know about."

Rather's storied career – he spent more than 40 years with CBS News and succeeded the legendary Walter Cronkite in the anchor chair for The CBS Evening News – has made him one of the world's best-known journalists. He's interviewed every president since Eisenhower. With decades spent on the front lines covering the world's biggest stories – from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy to the Vietnam War to the Watergate crisis that ended with the resignation of President Richard Nixon – Rather is able to offer his readers a unique if not intimate view of America's history and its historical change.

It's easy to gain from reading What Unites Us and by listening to Rather that regardless of the state of our current national political climate, he maintains a fundamental sense of hope that comes from sharing our nation's transformative values, from empathy to inclusion to service.

Photo of Dan Rather by Michael Dickens © 2017.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

In the age of internet, why public libraries are still relevant

Woodridge Neighborhood Library in Washington, D.C.

After moving to Maryland earlier this year, one of my top priorities was finding a good local public library. And I did, even if its across the District line in Washington. I visit the Woodridge Neighborhood Library, a branch of the District of Columbia Public Library system regularly – it's only a mile from our new home – and depending upon the time of the day, the library is often filled with people availing themselves to some of the many services offered. Indeed, it's a very positive environment, which opened to the public on September 28, 2016, to much fanfare.

I've seen high school students doing their homework, college students writing their dissertations, younger kids enjoying reading time, adults searching electronic job boards. A public library is a living room where one can go and feel human instead of feeling threatened. For some, including many young students, a neighborhood public library like Woodridge represents the only wi-fi source available to them for free. With 40 desktop computers with internet access available for use, this public library's value isn't lost on its patrons.

There is a warm, community-oriented ambiance inside the 20,000 square-foot Woodridge Neighborhood Library – not to mention a modern design by Wiencek + Associates and Bing Thom Architects that spreads throughout the library's two floors. It's open seven days a week and stays open late Monday through Thursday until 9 p.m.

Indeed, public libraries serve as a valuable bridge between the information-rich and the information-poor. Within these welcoming confines – and the Woodridge Branch is very welcoming – librarians provide a highly skilled service that meets the needs of the general public. I speak with the authority of someone who is married to a librarian.

As our public libraries play a vital role bridging the digital divide and teaching people how to get reliable information from the internet – something that's become very important following the Russian meddling scandal during the 2016 presidential election – it is for this very reason that we need our public libraries now more than ever despite living in an age when most everyone has broadband and can access information without recourse to a librarian.

While I appreciate that my local public library is open seven days a week, many public libraries have limited hours. Federal funding of public libraries has decreased by nearly 40 percent since 2000 and now – more than ever – they need our support not our dismantling.

There is something of important value gained from the physical, communal space of a library, and our public libraries need to continue to be able to provide highly skilled services in order to meet the needs of the general public – not to mention continuing their valuable mission of being repositories for books. I believe they ought to continue to innovate in order to take advantage of the way people are interacting with their libraries, which differs today than it did 10 years ago – even five years ago. There is a digital gap we need to continue bridging between those who have access to the internet and those who do not.

At local public libraries, there are core services such as book loans, study materials for local and national elections, availability of federal and state income tax guides and forms, and weekday and Saturday story hours for children, that remain vital. And, of course, where would we be without our librarians? They may be physical people – hopefully never replaceable by robots – and in the age of Google, their purpose remains valuable.

It's my hope that everyone does what they can to support their own local public libraries, especially now in the age of President Trump's self-proclaimed "fake news." After all, an ill-informed society that is ill-equipped to prosper in today's "information age" is a dangerous prospect for any democracy.

Learn more about the Woodridge Neighborhood Library by clicking on the link.

Photo: Courtesy of DCLibrary.org.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

"Battle of the Sexes": Game, set, match, Billie Jean King

Battle of the Sexes /
Emma Stone as Billie Jean King (L) and Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs.

"Battle of the Sexes," a fictionalization of the 1973 exhibition tennis match between World No. 1 Billie Jean King and ex-champion and serial hustler Bobby Riggs, starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell, opened to much fanfare in theaters across the U.S. last month.

It's a very good movie – a beautiful film about sports – with great storytelling, and I was gripped from start to finish. What hadn't occurred to me when I sat down with my wife in a suburban Washington, D.C. theater on a recent Sunday afternoon to see "Battle of the Sexes" was that at its core, it's a lesbian love story that goes back and forth between intimate moments and public events, on and off the court. Throughout the film, we find out just how brave and authentic an athlete – and person – the 29-year-old King really was. Mind you, she just happened to be the top female tennis player in the world, too.

Meanwhile, Riggs had been one of the top players in the 1940s and won six major titles. However, by age 55, the self-avowed male chauvinist pig – both an energetic hustler and promoter, but an ebullient boor – had become a big gambler with a penchant for turning provocation into profit. 

"It was a man vs. woman match made for maximum public-relations gimmickry, but also a deadly serious referendum on equality on and off the court," wrote Manohla Dargis in her review of the film for The New York Times.

Indeed, the bespectacled King was a feminist symbol and the first woman athlete in any sport to win more than $100,000 in a single year. She was the centerpiece of the fledgling Virginia Slims women's professional tour that was out to fight against the gross inequalities that defined men's and women's professional tennis since the beginning of in the Open Era in 1968. Fast forward to the 2017 WTA Finals in Singapore won by Caroline Wozniacki on Sunday, with the awarding of multi-million dollar prize money to its participants and broadcast to a worldwide television audience, and you realize just how far women's tennis has come in the past forty-plus years.

At the same time, during her prime King was championing women's rights, including equal pay. So, in agreeing to play the floppy-haired Riggs in an exhibition match that was staged inside the vast Houston Astrodome in Houston, Texas – and televised in evening prime time throughout the U.S. – it became both personal and political while remaining entertainment, too. 

"There's a lot to follow and a great deal to look at, including an atmospherically embellished past that turns the movie into a veritable way back machine of amusing and amusingly unfortunate colors and choices," writes Dargis. "There are plaid jackets and flirty minis, sideburns and shags, harvest-gold drapes and rooms perilously fogged in by cigarette smoke."

The real Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, in 1973.
Leading up to the big match, Riggs' sexist pronouncements get bigger and more outrageous, and some of his stunts – many of them wildly absurd and self-serving – are hard to take seriously. However, they offer some good comic relief during the film. Yet, for all of the drama and pomp and ceremony, the King-Riggs event drew plenty of Hollywood attention. Spectators came to the event dressed elegantly and sipped champagne while sitting court side. There were more than 30,000 fans watching in person inside the Astrodome while 50 million Americans watched at home on TV. (I was a high school teenager when the real event occurred, and I remember watching it at home on TV with my family. I was pulling for King to win.)

Riggs was paid $50,000 to sport a bright yellow Sugar Daddy jacket, which he took off after just three games. Meanwhile, King entered the arena in the great Hollywood fashion of Cleopatra, complete with four muscular and bare-chested males dressed in the style of ancient slaves who carried her in on a feather-adorned litter. Riggs presented King with an oversized Sugar Daddy lollipop and King gifted her opponent with a piglet, which was symbolic of his male chauvinism.

As it happened, the two-time Wimbledon champion King ran Riggs all over the court and trounced her opponent in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. She won by forsaking her usually aggressive approach to play a solid baseline game that allowed her to handle his lobs and soft shots. Afterward, she called her winner-take-all victory over Riggs the "culmination" of her career.

While King and Riggs are the focal points of the film, the tennis scenes are pretty convincing. That's because real players were used as doubles for King and Riggs. Kaitlyn Christian, a former champion collegiate doubles player at the University of Southern California who is struggling to make it as a professional on the minor-league ITF circuit, acted as Emma Stone's tennis double in portraying King, and former men's professional Vince Spadea served as the tennis double for Steve Carell, who played Riggs. 

Before she was cast, Christian had never played with a wooden racket with its smaller sweet spots like the ones King used in her prime. However, I learned, her forehand and backhand slice was convincing and it reminded me of how much the women's game has evolved since King's heyday into one that relies upon powerful ground strokes as exuded by predominant power players of today like Serena Williams. 

Looking back, King liked to serve and volley. She wasn't afraid to come toward the net to control points against her opponents. Her style, which served her well both throughout her professional career – and for one great festive night against Riggs – was one that relied upon finesse coupled with a dash of touch and spin.

Meanwhile, King's personal life became a bigger part of the movie, thanks to directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris of Little Miss Sunshine fame, who tweaked the screenplay. King, who came out as a lesbian in the 1980s and would go on to become a widely admired advocate for LGBT groups, was at the time of her exhibition against Riggs married to a man – and in the early stages of grappling with her sexuality after falling for a female hair stylist.

"It really did happen this way, where Billie Jean began her first affair with a woman at a time when she was one of the most famous women in America, if not the world," Mr. Dayton told The New York Times. "So that seemed like an important story to tell. And at the same time, she was fighting this very public battle for equality."

While Riggs may have viewed the match as nothing more than a publicity stunt, King felt that beating Riggs was important both for women's tennis as well as for the women's liberation movement. "I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn't win that match," King once said. "It would ruin the women's tour and affect all women's self-esteem."

Instead, while King's victory over Riggs didn't define her career, it became her destiny to work toward gender equality – not only in tennis but in all sports. And, as a nation that loves its sports, we are all appreciative of what this true champion has achieved in her lifetime.

Monday, October 16, 2017

In Uncommon Type, Tom Hanks examines the human condition and all its foibles – and his love of typewriters

Tom Hanks is an American treasure. He's more than just a funny guy who makes great and memorable motion pictures like Apollo 13 and Forrest Gump. Now, the Oscar-winning actor, producer and director has turned to writing – and he's written a pretty decent book, Uncommon Type: Some Stories, about his obsession with typewriters.

Yes, typewriters!

Uncommon Type is a collection of 17 short stories written by Hanks on a variety of his vintage typewriters that examines the human condition and all of its foibles. He writes honestly and sensitively about many different subjects, including: a World War II veteran and his family in "Christmas Eve 1953," a rocket ship constructed in a backyard that takes four friends to the moon and back in "Three Exhausting Weeks," a California surfer kid who stumbles into his father's secret life in "Welcome to Mars," and a small-town newspaper columnist who shares his old-fashioned views while trying to remain relevant in an internet age in "Our Town with Hank Fiset."

In every story, Hanks sneaks in the machine of his obsession – the typewriter. In its review of Uncommon Type, The Guardian of London called his work: "nostalgic, conversational, fusty."

In praise of Uncommon Type, comedian Steve Martin wrote: "It turns out that Tom Hanks is also a wise and hilarious writer with an endlessly surprising mind. Damn it."

Interviewed by NPR Morning Edition host David Greene this weekHanks admitted that sometimes the typewriter is merely a plot device.

"Sometimes it really does feel almost hidden," said Greene. "And in talking to Hanks, you learn that his thing with typewriters is not a gimmick – more like a love affair."

Here's how Hanks explained his obsession with typewriters:

"There something about it – I don't know, it's a hex in my brain – there is something I find reassuring, comforting, dazzling in that here is a very specific apparatus that is meant to do one thing, and it does it perfectly. And that one thing is to translate the thoughts in your head down to paper. Now that means everything from a shopping list to James Joyce's Ulysses. Short of carving words into stone with a hammer and chisel, not much is more permanent than a paragraph or a sentence or a love letter or a story typed on paper," said Hanks during his NPR Morning Edition interview.

In the current New York Times Book Review, Hanks was asked which short story writers he most admires and what makes for a great short story:

"The Cheever stories, the Vonnegut stories, the Salinger stories (especially those I had to find online, before he became THAT Salinger). Bukowski wrote short stories that were prose poems, yet I read them as the vignettes of life that, to me, rate as full-blown short stories," said Hanks.

I came upon an advance reader's edition of Uncommon Type last June while attending a library conference with my wife in Chicago, which provided me with a chance to read some of these graceful and moving stories that are both funny and whimsical as well as filled with the right touch of melancholy. As others have noted, one of the central qualities of Hanks's writing is its "poignant playfulness." I'm looking forward to seeing Hanks in conversation later this week at the Warner Theatre in Washington, D.C., as part of a national tour in support of his book. Hearing him read aloud from Uncommon Type – a welcome new voice in contemporary short fiction – will be the next best thing to having him sit in my home reading it aloud to me.

Uncommon Type: Some Stories by Tom Hanks is published in the U.S. by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. $26.95.

Photos illustration and Tom Hanks photo: Courtesy of Google Images.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

We're all in: A look back at the inuagural Laver Cup

Hoisting the Laver Cup / Roger Federer and Team Europe celebrates.

Throughout the tennis world, all eyes were focused on the O2 Arena in Prague last weekend for the inaugural Laver Cup. By all accounts, it was a huge success. For three days it was Europe versus the World – even, if at times, it was more like Europe versus the United States. Still, anytime you have an event where Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are included – let alone teamed as magnetic doubles partners – we're all in.

"I could get used to playing on the same side of the net as @Rafael Nadal," Federer tweeted after he played doubles with Nadal.

At a time when the Davis Cup has failed to adapt, innovate and simplify its format, the Laver Cup – largely the brainchild of Federer – stepped in and made a statement. From its all-star team concept to its innovative scoring – in which the point value of matches increased each day – to the pitch-black court, it seemed tennis fans liked it. So, too, did television audiences – even if it meant for U.S. viewers having to wake as early as 3:30 a.m. on the west coast to watch it. (For those of us living on the east coast, tuning in to see the early matches was still very much a breakfast affair, starting from 6:30 a.m.) 

Just as important, I sensed the players enjoyed participating in the Laver Cup, named after the Australian Hall of Fame great Rod Laver. There was plenty of camaraderie to go around for both teams. To see Federer and Nadal cheering each other on was pure delight. And, in seeing Federer offer some very sound coaching advice to his young teammate, Alexander Zverev, suggested to me that he has a very bright future as a pro tennis coach if he wishes to pursue that avenue.

"It's trying to thread the needle between a fun, unsanctioned event, but not an exhibition," wrote Sports Illustrated executive editor and senior writer Jon Wertheim. "But by and large, it succeeded. The matches were entertaining. The format worked. The players were sufficiently invested. We saw – yet again – that best-of-five is an excess. The black court looked cool. Federer and Nadal playing alongside each other was tremendous."

On the last day of competition, in which each victory was worth three points, the final match of the first Laver Cup came down to Federer facing the mercurial Nick Kyrgios, who shed his bad-boy image and seemed to embrace the team concept. The Swiss provided a nice coda for his memorable season as he won in three sets after facing a match point at 8-9 in the decisive match tiebreaker. 

Final score: Team Europe 15, Team World 9.

"It was a feeling that was on the same level as the biggest moments I've had in my career," said Federer, following his 4-6, 7-6 (6) [11-9] victory over Kyrgios.

It prompted Christopher Clarey, tennis columnist for The New York Times, to write of Federer's reaction: "That is a major statement from a 36-year-old champion who has won a record 19 major singles titles, an Olympic gold medal and Switzerland's first Davis Cup."

Federer and Nadal / A magnetic doubles team.
While the Laver Cup was technically an exhibition – after all, it offered no ATP rankings points or official tour sanctioning – it hardly seemed like one. There were capacity crowds each day and the big arena atmosphere seemed reminiscent of the ATP Finals in London.

"People were questioning if this is going to be an exhibition," said Team Europe's Marin Cilic, after his team swept to an early lead in first day of competition, "but for none of us this is exhibition."

John McEnroe, the former World No. 1 and highly visible (and vocal) on the sidelines as coach for Team World – and never one for a loss of words – said of the Laver Cup: "You've got to be an idiot if you don't think this is something that could be great for tennis. I can't imagine there's a player that played – or didn't play, for that matter, and watched it – who wouldn't think this is something we should be supporting."

Imagine, what it must have felt like for the event's youngest competitors, the 20-year-old Zverev for Team Europe, and Frances Tiafoe, 19, and Denis Shapovalov, 18, for Team World, competing in the inaugural Laver Cup. Each got a taste for what it's like playing in front of a big, enthusiastic crowd on a big tennis stage. And, collectively, they represent the best of the #NextGenATP players.

All of that said, I have a simple suggestion for the future. Although the next Laver Cup will be held at the spacious United Center in Chicago (home of professional basketball's Chicago Bulls and pro ice hockey's Chicago Blackhawks) in September 2018, it is my hope that Team World will try to be more global in its selection of players. Granted this year, Kei Nishikori of Japan was injured, Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina withdrew because he was not sufficiently recovered from the U.S. Open, and Kevin Anderson of South Africa was not available. However, each would help make Team World a more well-rounded squad to go along with Americans such as John Isner, Sam Querrey and Jack Sock, and Kyrgios of Australia. Of course, if Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic are healthy, not to mention Stan Wawrinka, it's scary to imagine the potential depth of Team Europe. Perhaps, the organizers will have to rethink the current geographical concept in order to spread out the wealth of European talent that dominates the current tennis landscape.

Although the Laver Cup came just two weeks after the conclusion of the United States Open and a week following the Davis Cup semifinals, it's placement in an already crowded tennis calendar was welcome. For many of us who follow tennis in the U.S., the United States Open has always been a climatic peak of the season – especially in years when the U.S. has already been eliminated from the Davis Cup. So, witnessing the positive reception of the Laver Cup – whether in person or watching at home on TV – I can't help but think that added up, it gives us all a sense of the great emotion and wonderful team spirit that often is missing in our worldwide sport. Not to mention, thanks to Federer and Nadal, there were some pretty decent feel-good moments, too. 

Photos: Courtesy of Roger Federer's Twitter feed.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

But Seriously ... John McEnroe is back and ready to talk

During this month's U.S. Open fortnight, I began reading But Seriously by John McEnroe. It's honest, it's funny, there's no bulls–t. What's not to like, right?

Well, it's been fifteen years since McEnroe's international No. 1 bestseller You Cannot Be Serious, and in reading his new memoir, it's clear that the elder statesman of tennis is ready to talk, again.

McEnroe has alway been seen as someone who is both controversial and beloved. In But Seriously, the tennis Hall of Famer and commentator for ESPN and other American and European networks "confronts his demons and reveals his struggle to reinvent himself from champion and tennis legend to father, broadcaster and author."

As The Guardian wrote in its review of But Seriously, the book reveals McEnroe's "difficulty of living a mature life in the shadow of youthful achievement."

As a tennis player, McEnroe made his mark as a champion during the final two decades of the 20th century. He was always outspoken with his views about tennis and its players during his playing career. Now, he's combined the world of 21st century sport and celebrity through both his commentary and in his writing, too.

In But Seriously, among the many questions and themes which McEnroe tackles are: "Who are the game's winners and losers? What's it like playing guitar onstage with the Rolling Stones, hitting balls with today's greats, confronting his former on-court nemeses, getting scammed by an international art dealer, and raising a big family while balancing McEnroe-sized expectations?"

But Seriously is richly personal and McEnroe is brutally honest in what he shares with us.

"In 2002, when I ended my first book, I was just beginning the process of working out what I was going to do with my life now that I could no longer compete at the highest level as an athlete," writes McEnroe. "Would it still be tennis – playing on the seniors tour, commentating, a bit of coaching – or something else, like art-dealing, or TV, or film? Or something totally different? I had no idea which way my life was heading, but I knew if I wanted to have new experiences that would fire me up the same way being on a tennis court had done, I was going to have to take some major risks.

"I've always needed to feel challenged, to push myself, and I've tried out a lot of different stuff in the intervening fifteen years. Some of it's worked and some of it hasn't, but in life as in sports, it's often the big defeats that teach you the most. If you're too scared of falling flat on your ass, you'll never get out of your chair. And I hope that what I've learned from some of the more laughable calamities I'm going to describe for you on the pages that follow has given me a new perspective on the successes that came before."

Here are some candid excerpts from But Seriously:

On art:
"I love art and as a result know a little more about it than the average person, but I'm no expert. What I would say is that when you look at some of the biggest artists in the world right now, people like Damien Hirst, Takashi Murakami, Richard Prince, Jeff Koons – what's keeping them a step ahead of the competition isn't only their art, it's the fact that each and every  one of them is a brilliant businessman who knows how to maximize the return from their talents." ...

"Collecting art has become a lot more complicated over the years. When I first started buying, I did it on the basis of acquiring things that I liked – that I would want to put on the walls in my house. I thought that was my biggest strength – that I didn't have some kind of dogma I'd learned from studying art history holding me back. With hindsight, that probably hurt me quite a bit, financially. If I had listened to people that knew, who told me to buy certain things at certain times, pieces that I wasn't sure about, I would have done even better. I started to do that after a while, so I wasn't a total moron, but I'd still get stubborn sometimes. And that would cost me."

On commentary:
"Even while I was pursing other career options and interests at the start of the 2000s, I had no intention of turning my back on my work as a commentator. For me, being in the commentary box is an opportunity to have a voice in the game. It won't surprise you that I've got a few things to say  – on doubles, on the lack of serve-volleyers in today's game, on wooden racquets, on let-cord serves, on gamesmanship, on ... Do you want me to go on? As self-appointed 'Commissioner of Tennis,' it is my duty to do that.

"At first I would get upset when people told me I was a better TV commentator than I was a player – it took me years to realize they were paying me a compliment. I started behind the microphone back in 1992, when the dominant style of commentary was incredibly dry and boring (or at least, I thought it was). My timing was good, because tennis on TV was crying out for a change of style." ...

"When it comes to my commentating style, I try to be honest, though I'm always respectful – I hope – of the players I'm watching. Whatever the level of tennis, I know it takes guts to be out there. I don't make it about me, either, so I won't speculate about what I would be going through if I was on court, or compare what's happening on court with what I might have gone through in a similar match. I won't reminisce what it was like for me, say, in my final of 1980 – whatever, because half of the viewers weren't even born then. And anyway, who cares? Viewers want some insight into what they're watching, not some old fart going on about what he might have gone through thirty years before with his wooden racket. Which isn't to say I don't think what I did with that Dunlop wasn't pretty cool at times. I just don't want to keep reminding people."

On music:
"As a teenager, I remember sitting up and taking notice when the girls started screaming for Björn Borg in his first year at Wimbledon. It was like something out of Beatlemania. I began to take the sport I was playing a bit more seriously.

"Once I started going to Europe to play Wimbledon every year I went from being the kid who played the sissy sport to someone who was cool enough to hang out with the British rock stars who'd been my heroes. That was one of my greatest perks when it came to success on the tennis court. I'd never imagined rock guys like Robert Plant being into Wimbledon – that was the opposite of what I would've expected. But the Stones, Zeppelin, all these bands I'd grown up loving – even Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath – were telling me, 'You're great,' or 'Wow, I really respect what you're doing.' I was still only a kid at the time, and I remember thinking, 'Holy sh–t! This is amazing!'"

On artists:
"I have a special appreciation for artists – and stand-up comedians – because, like tennis players, they're out there by themselves. That's part of the reason I love art, because I realize artists have to expose themselves to criticism, just like we do on a court. There's always the potential to embarrass ourselves, and we have to learn how to deal with that. For tennis players, it's not about who hits the tennis ball better, because a lot of people can do that. It's about getting over jet lag, getting over the nerves, getting over fear of failure – and actual failure – among other things, because very rarely do things go the way you want them to.

"For artists, there's this constant process of appraisal and rejection, especially with abstract or conceptual art – 'What the hell is that? It sucks. My kid could do better.' That sort of stuff. So I respect them for putting themselves through that, I admire them for having the guts to put themselves and their work on the line, and as a result I'm interested in them as characters."

On Roger Federer:
"In the summer of 2003, I'd been back in the commentary booth at Wimbledon. No one knew it at the time – least of all me – but as I watched Roger Federer win the first of his seven Wimbledon titles, I was watching the dawn of a new era. What's incredible – with hindsight, and given who he has become – is that back then no one was totally convinced about Federer. Sure, people had been talking about him for a while as the next big thing, especially after he'd beaten Pete Sampras at Wimbledon in 2001. But by this time he was almost twenty-two, and in the Slams he hadn't gotten further than the quarters, so there was a question mark over whether he was ever going to get it together to win one Grand Slam title, let alone eighteen (at the time of this writing!). No one was jumping up and down shouting, 'This guy is going to be the greatest player, just you watch!' Even so, I believe the expectation of what he might be capable of was getting to him. Yes, I know, Roger Federer."

On winning his first Grand Slam:
"Winning your first Slam is always a game-changer for a player – both in your own head and in the way other people see you. Suddenly you're on another level from the other pros, a potential title contender wherever you go. My own first Grand Slam title win was at the U.S. Open in 1979. I was twenty years old, and up against my fellow New Yorker Vitas Gerulaitis, who was four years older than me. This was the guy who had taken me under his wing and become my friend and mentor, and I was feeling uncomfortable about having to play him now in what was the biggest match of either of our careers. The crazy thing was, here we were, two guys from Queens, and we actually got booed by the New York crowd. Why? They'd wanted a Connors-Borg final and we'd gone and spoiled it for them. Too bad. I didn't care. I'd had a great run in the tournament, I'd beaten Connors easily to get to the final, so I felt like it was my year.

"On the day, I was able to put my relationship with Vitas aside and ended up beating him in straight sets. Now I had taken my place at the top along with Connors and Borg. Vitas could've held that against me, but he never did. In fact, he even took me out with him on the night I beat him. Straight after the final he asked me, 'What are you doing later?' I replied, 'What are you doing?' Because I knew whatever he was doing was going to be a hell of a lot better than what I might have planned! I guess there's more than one way to be a winner."